In recent years lawmakers across America have been implementing policies meant to protect working mothers who breastfeed or pump at work. State by state, labor and building codes are changing to help pumping mothers get out of bathrooms, and at the federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) covers basic accommodations and break times for working, nursing moms.
But not every working mother in America is covered by the FLSA's Break Time for Nursing Mothers law and even some who should be protected by the FLSA find their working environment is not complying with the law.
What happens to mothers who point out that they're being discriminated against? Unfortunately, most of the time, they lose money fighting for their rights and in two-thirds of cases they ultimately lose their jobs.
This according to a new report by the Pregnancy Accommodation Working Group, an initiative of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, which tracked the outcomes of breastfeeding discrimination legal cases filed by workers over the last decade.
"Breastfeeding discrimination is widespread and can have devastating consequences for women and their families" says Liz Morris, a co-author of the report. "Despite a patchwork of laws giving legal rights to breastfeeding employees, millions still do not have the basic legal protections they need. Workers are losing their jobs to feed their babies," she continues.
The report highlights a few very concerning gaps in breastfeeding protections: Many workers in some predominantly female-professions, like nursing and teaching, find themselves exempt from the federal legal protections for breastfeeding workers. And things aren't necessarily easier if you're in one of the male-dominated professions.
Women are underrepresented in the ranks of law enforcement and other first responders, but women in these male-dominated fields are over represented in the number of breastfeeding discrimination claims, filing about 46% of them."Our community helpers, like first responders and teachers, have given so much to us–yet we haven't even given them the basic breastfeeding time and space they deserve" says Jessica Lee, a co-author of the report.
Moms let down by policy and employers
Simone Teagle is a New York City police officer who came back from a three month maternity leave with the intention of pumping for her son. She says pumping in a non-private break room was tough—a co-worker compared her to a cow—but often having to go for nine hours without pumping at all was tougher. She says she was harassed when she tried to take breaks to pump. Not pumping resulted in painful mastitis, and Teagle eventually took legal action and was reassigned to another precinct, according to news reports.
In many other cases, women who complain and raise the issue in the hopes of advocating for themselves and those who come after them don't get reassigned, they get terminated or forced out.
Kate Frederick was working at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services when her son was born in 2012. He would not take a bottle, but she felt lucky to find a day care right across the street from her office. "I totally assumed that since it was Health and Human Services and all that it wouldn't be a problem to feed him at his daycare. I didn't anticipate any resistance," Frederick says.
But she did face resistance. Despite having a doctor's note (and despite the fact that other employees left the office during breaks to run to Dunkin' Donuts) she says her supervisor said no. She says she was also told she couldn't nurse her baby in the office lactation room, as it was intended for pumping, not nursing. Eventually Frederick was fired. She took legal action, and her case is scheduled to go before a jury in September 2019.
Susan Van Son, a correctional officer, couldn't even get her manual breast pump into her workplace legally. The New York Times explains how over the course of "two nights, she sneaked in every piece of the pump, save for one. Ms. Van Son's breasts weren't big enough to conceal the funnel, so she enlisted a better-endowed colleague to shuttle it in for her."
Understandably, Van Son left that job. So did a nurse who was bullied about her pumping breaks. So did a mother in the Air Force. So did an insurance company staffer who says her supervisor pressured her to quit and even dictated the resignation letter.
Finding a solution
Morris, Lee and their co-author, Joan C. Williams, compiled so many more stories like these in their report, but they also believe there is a solution that would protect moms from losing their jobs over pumping.
According to the trio, "robust breastfeeding laws already in effect in a number of states have been proven to work." They say workplace lactation policies need to offer universal coverage, with no employer exemption, recognize diverse physical needs and circumstances and reasonable accommodations, include functional space requirements and strong enforcement mechanisms and be economically realistic.
It's a tall order, to be sure, but San Fransisco got pretty close with its new law, one policy makers at all levels of government might want to check out, because it's time to recognize that the Break Time for Working Mothers provision to the FLSA leaves a lot of workers out. This is because it was passed as an amendment to an existing law regarding overtime pay, and so workers in certain professions (hello, teachers pumping in cars) aren't covered.
When it comes to protecting breastfeeding parents at work, America has certainly made some great strides in the last decade, but there is more work to be done to protect mothers who are just trying to feed their babies.